Though it might be difficult for us to imagine and it might even pain us to say it, Jesus had a pretty bad reputation in his day. It was just like my mother always told me when I was in school; hang out with the wrong people and everyone else will start to think you’re just like them. I don’t think Jesus would have taken that advice from anyone if they’d given it to him. He worked and socialized with entirely the wrong kind of people all the time. But that was business as usual for him. Somehow, he seemed to turn things upside down and the least, worst and weakest were, to him, the most important and powerful. He ate with rough fishermen who didn’t wash their hands, as well as all manner of other despised people of the community. He spent a good deal of time concerning himself with the poor, sick and those who were, to most everyone else’s eyes, either worthless or invisible altogether.
However, Jesus did not limit his associations to only the “wrong” side of the tracks. He also mingled with those who were considered to be the great and powerful of his time. He not only spent time with the outcast, he also did so with the rich and influential as well, even coming very close to people who were enemies of Israel. Clearly, Jesus meant to spread his message from one end of the social spectrum to the other and all points in between.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus has one of those unusual encounters we often see but this time, it isn’t with a woman or a person with a terrible illness or possessing demons or legal experts who wish to verbally spar with him. This time, his encounter is with, of all things, a great enemy of the Israelites: A Roman Centurion. So begins this story of enemies and foreigners, strength and weakness. If this sermon had a sound track, right about now it would go something like this: dum dum dum! A Roman Centurion ought to be an enemy of Jesus’ too! And yet, this particular one isn’t.
This centurion had a deeply loved servant (or slave) who was gravely ill and he—that is to say, the centurion not the slave—believes this Jewish rabbi can and will save him. So, let’s get this straight here. A man who was likely something of a cross between a State Trooper and a soldier, used to having all his orders obeyed and having the full authority of the world’s superpower of that age behind him, believes that this controversial religious leader of a subjugated people with whom the centurion shares neither culture nor religion, can and will heal his slave.
Our text says that upon hearing about Jesus, the centurion sends some of his Jewish friends to ask for Jesus’ help. This sentence alone is full of all kinds of surprising things. That he would have heard of Jesus, not so much of a surprise maybe, but that he a) has Jewish friends to send and b) sends them to ASK Jesus for help are quite remarkable and unexpected. No soldiers came for Jesus, at least not this time, and no command was sent. Additionally, as we said before, the Israelites were a subjugated people and it would have been quite unusual for one of the military leaders to be friendly with a group of Jewish leaders.
When they come to Jesus, they tell him that this centurion is worthy of Jesus’ help because “he loves our people and it is he who built our synagogue.” And then Jesus, who might understandably have been doubtful or perhaps even wary, goes immediately. Surprises abound!
Yet, the surprises are not over. As they are on their way, another group comes to Jesus and gives him a message from the centurion. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” He then goes on to say that he is familiar with how power and authority work in the world and he knows Jesus is powerful enough to just say the word and the servant will be healed. This tells us not only that the centurion is familiar with his own ability to give orders and have them obeyed but also that he is not giving an order now but, instead, asking for help. He tells Jesus he is not worthy and does not presume to come to Jesus himself. It also tells us he has remarkable faith in Jesus’ power in the world. He has both a great understanding of what power is and a great humility before Jesus.
It is now that Jesus does something perhaps even more surprising than the remarkable gesture of humility displayed by the centurion himself. Jesus, being absolutely amazed at this great faith, turns to the people around him and says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith!” The enemies of Israel more faithful than they are? Wow! Imagine that! Imagine Jesus coming into church today and telling us that someone who doesn’t worship like us, possibly not even of our same faith, and is in fact an enemy of ours, is considered by him to be more faithful than we are!
But this is Jesus way of doing business in the world. This is the world that Jesus would make. This is the Kingdom of God Jesus is bringing about, where people who are foreign, strangers and even enemies can be recognized as valued by God and are welcome by us. This is the world Jesus will make and is making, where we love our enemies, welcome strangers and people who are foreign to us. In Christ, they are no longer enemies, strangers and foreigners but we are all people of God.
In our Old Testament lesson we hear King Solomon as he prays the inaugural prayers of the great temple and even way back here we see that God is, while still choosing Israel as his special people, welcoming all people. The great temple, the first temple, the first great house of God that was no longer a tent to be carried to the promised land but a place of permanent worship in the land God has promised to the people of Israel since the days of Abraham, is where King Solomon prays this prayer. “…when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name…when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you…” Solomon prays for many things for the people of Israel that day but he also prays for people who are foreigners, people who are not like them and they have perhaps never even laid eyes on. Though God has chosen Israel to be his covenant people, God has also always had arms wide enough to encircle all of humanity.
Our gospel text ends with those who knew the centurion returning to the house and discovering the slave who had been ill made well. It was just as the centurion had believed. He had faith that Jesus could heal and was so powerful that he didn’t even have to come to his home to do it. The centurion’s faith, greater than what Jesus had thus far found in the Israelite people, was proved right.
In a way, the centurion is a bit like all those marginalized people that Jesus associated with and from whom he got such a bad reputation. It sounds strange to say so, but it is true. On the surface, this powerful Roman military leader, deeply imbedded in and an integral part of the system of a mighty and formidable power seems to have nothing in common at all with prostitutes, widows, blind men, fishermen, tax collectors, lepers, those who are suffering and dying from a terrible illness, or simply any random person of a subjugated group and second class citizenry of Rome. But he does. He, too, like all of them, is weak. The centurion, however, chose to not be blinded by all the perceived power he appeared to wield and instead recognized Jesus as the one with all the power. The others were weak, largely due to their circumstances, and did not have as many illusions to combat when it came to Jesus and having faith in his power. But the centurion had every reason to believe himself to be powerful and to even think he had the power to command Jesus. Yet, he didn’t and it is this weakness that proved to be his great strength of faith.
Once again, this is Jesus way of doing business in the world. This is the world that Jesus would make. This is the Kingdom of God Jesus is bringing about, where people who are foreign, strangers and enemies are welcome and where weakness is where true strength lies. This is the world Jesus will make and is making, where we love our enemies, welcome strangers and people who are foreign to us; a world in which we put faith not in illusions of power but have faith in Jesus in our weakness, finding true strength. In Christ, they are no longer enemies, strangers and foreigners but we are all people of God. In Christ, all that we might consider weakness is truly strength of faith in Jesus himself.